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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsCommunity‘Poetry Keeps Coming Back to the Question of Life and Death’

‘Poetry Keeps Coming Back to the Question of Life and Death’

The HSE School of Philology is organising a new university project, Poet in Residence. The first poet to take up the post is Alexander Kushner. In October he came to talk to students about what poetry is concerned with and promised students he would comment on their verses in the future. 

Poet in Residence is a special appointment in American and European universities when poets are invited to give master classes and teach courses in creative writing. HSE is going to do the same. Throughout the year the university will arrange free literary evenings with Alexander Kushner for students and anyone interested in poetry.

At the first evening with the new poet in residence, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov, professing his love of poetry since childhood said, ‘the Poet in Residence project is a sign that the university acknowledges its thirst for irrational experience, or that rationality is no longer enough. The university wants the people who gather here to study and work to be well-rounded. And to my mind, poetry is a concentrated expression of emotional (irrational) culture.’    

At the first evening, Alexander Kushner, praised by Brodsky for his lyric poetry, laureate of many Russian poetry prizes, and author of more than 15 books of poetry and several books in prose, read poems to those assembled, and in the break answered their questions.

What is poetry concerned with?

Poetry keeps coming back to life and death, to these eternal questions for which she (poetry) doesn’t have an answer. This question doesn’t have an answer, she thinks this and that and contradicts herself and cajoles herself. That’s how it must be. I think that absolute certainty that God exists or absolute certainty that he doesn’t is fatal for poetry. Poetry is born out of thoughts, passionate feelings, today you feel one way, tomorrow another. And this is where sparks fly and poems are written. And maybe that is how a thinking person lives, in hope and doubt.

Can we email our poems to you?

Yes, of course. But not more than 6 - 8 poems. It’s hard to take in more than that at once. It’s plenty for a first encounter. As a drop of water tells you about the stream it comes from and 6 - 8 poems show you what lies further behind them. 

You taught in a school for ten years, what is the secret of being a good teacher?

Yes, it was hard work but interesting. After all, it’s working with living people. The secret is simple, if a teacher loves his subject and knows it well everything will be fine. A teacher like that can get the children interested, ‘infect’ them with his love of the subject and that’s the main thing. How do you get a child to read War and Peace for example? It’s very easy. Read a chapter in the lesson and then explain it, analyse it. You have to approach the work not in a formal way - in the school curriculum you must read certain works -  but as a great joy. After all, thank God, we have a great literature. If our country has something to be proud of it isn’t tanks and planes, but Pushkin and Lermontov.

How do you feel about your poems being made into lyrics?

Poems have their own music and Russian poetry is particularly melodious. When someone uses my poems in a song I am grateful because the songs reach a wider public and they are often really good.

Do you like art?

I can’t imagine my life without paintings. Paintings are absolutely indispensable, and not only paintings. Music too, of course.

How would you compare your work to great poets like Brodsky and Mandelshtam?

It’s not my business to compare myself to anyone. As Napoleon said, ‘Glory is the sun of the dead’. We only start to talk about a creator once he has died. A lot of great people went unacknowledged in their lifetimes.

At the next meeting (dates to be announced) Alexander Kushner will comment on poems by HSE students and other aspiring poets.